Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel Prize-winning explorer of myth and reality, dies at 87

By Marcela Valdes
The Washington Post. Page One. April 17, 2014.

Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer who immersed the world in the powerful currents of magic realism, creating a literary style that blended reality, myth, love and loss in a series of emotionally rich novels that made him one of the most revered and influential writers of the 20th century, died April 17 at his home in Mexico City. He was 87.

The Associated Press reported his death. In July 2012, his brother Jaime García Márquez announced that the author had dementia.

Mr. García Márquez, who was affectionately known throughout Latin America as “Gabo,” was a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, memoirist and student of political history and modernist literature. Through the strength of his writing, he became a cultural icon who commanded a vast public following and who sometimes drew fire for his unwavering support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In his novels, novellas and short stories, Mr. García Márquez addressed the themes of love, loneliness, death and power. Critics generally rank “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975) and “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985) as his masterpieces.

“The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young,” President Obama said in a statement, calling the author “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas.”

Mr. García Márquez established his reputation with “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” an epic novel about multiple generations of the Buendía family in the fantastical town of Macondo, a lush settlement based on the author’s birthplace on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The novel explored social, economic and political ideas in a way that captured the experience of an entire continent, but it also included supernatural elements, such as a scene in which a young woman ascends to heaven while folding the family sheets.

By fusing two seemingly disparate literary traditions — the realist and the fabulist — Mr. García Márquez advanced a dynamic literary form, magic realism, that seemed to capture both the mysterious and the mundane qualities of life in a decaying South American city. For many writers and readers, it opened up a new way of understanding their countries and themselves.

In awarding Mr. García Márquez the literature prize in 1982, the Nobel committee said he had created “a cosmos in which the human heart and the combined forces of history, time and again, burst the bounds of chaos.”

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” has been translated into more than 35 languages and has sold, by some accounts, more than 50 million copies. The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda described the book as “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes.”

Mr. García Márquez parlayed his literary triumphs into political influence, befriending international dignitaries such as President Bill Clinton and François Mitterrand, the late president of France. The celebration for Mr. García Márquez’s 80th birthday was attended by five Colombian presidents and the king and queen of Spain.

Yet few knew the penury the author endured before achieving fame. “Everyone’s my friend since ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ ” Mr. García Márquez once told a brother, “but no one knows what it cost me to get there.”

Read the rest of this obituary at The Washington Post online

Benjamins or Bullets: How Mexico Became a Narco-Democracy

Photograph by  Anthony Suau. See his terrific series at: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1827101,00.html

Photograph by Anthony Suau. See his terrific series on the drug war in Mexico at: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1827101,00.html

“Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers” by Anabel Hernández
“The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail” by Óscar Martínez
Reviewed by Marcela Valdes
Columbia Journalism Review. November 1, 2013.

This is how it used to work: In the 1970s farmers would pay Mexican officials for permission to plant hectares of marijuana or poppy. “Once the fields had been sown,” an anonymous source tells Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, “they stuck little colored flags on them, according to the arrangement. This meant that when the [government] helicopters flew over, instead of fumigating them they would water them.”

Drug traffickers also paid fees to store their harvest in warehouses, and again to smuggle the drugs over the border into the United States. Through such under-the-table “taxes,” which amounted to about $60 a kilo, the Mexican government fattened its coffers while controlling the production and movement of drugs within its borders.

Today the servant has become the master. Cartels dominate not only large portions of Mexico’s government, but also much of the country’s civil society. Their payroll includes not just army personnel, police officers, intelligence agents, prison guards, business owners, and politicians, but also soda vendors, tortilla sellers, and gas-station attendants. Under their rule, fear has reached legendary proportions throughout Mexico. A man in Ciudad Juárez tells journalist Óscar Martínez that he’s afraid to use public bathrooms because he doesn’t want to find decapitated heads. “It sounds at first like he’s paranoid, or crazy,” Martínez writes, “but it’s happened to him twice.”

How did the Mexican government lose control of its traffickers? An answer can be found in two new books: Hernández’s Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers and Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Together they provide a top-down, bottom-up view of how Mexican cartels have consolidated and corporatized in the past two decades. As the cartels have integrated vertically, destroyed their competition, and diversified their interests, their business has grown more efficient—and so has their cruelty. In fact, a short version of Hernández’ book might run like this: Government officials thought they were training sheep; instead they were raising wolves.

Read the rest of this article at The Columbia Journalism Review online

A Literary History of Alice Munro

Like so many American readers, I was thrilled to hear the news that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize this week. I’ve been a fan of her short stories for decades, and back in 2006 I was lucky enough to spend about two months immersed in her work while I wrote this essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review:

Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me: A Literary History of Alice Munro

Sometime in the late 1970s, Alice Munro made a policy of refusing prizes that didn’t specifically honor the quality of her fiction. When the Canadian government offered her one of its highest honors in 1983—an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, which would have entitled her to a pretty, gold-edged medal with the mottoDesiderantes meliorem patriam (“They desire a better country”) emblazoned around a gold maple leaf—Munro politely declined. She didn’t feel comfortable, she said, with awards that celebrated celebrity. Only awards that had been earned by particular books or by particular groups of books were okay. Munro was fifty-two by then, and several such awards had already been placed, like love letters, upon her books…

Read the full essay at the Virginia Quarterly Review

What Terrifies Teens In Today’s Young Adult Novels? The Economy

by Marcela Valdes
NPR.org. September 30, 2013.

The Hunger GamesDivergent

If you think kids are too young to worry about unemployment numbers, consider this: some of our most popular young adult novels fairly shiver with economic anxiety. Take Veronica Roth’s Divergent, this week’s top New York Times Young Adult bestseller and a perennial on the list since its publication in 2011. Divergent‘s heroine, Beatrice Prior, braves hazing, groping and punching in order to enter the militaristic “faction” that she admires. She endures these dangers willingly because in Roth’s dystopian, all-or-nothing Chicago, Beatrice would be thrown into the streets if she fails her initiation. There, among the ruined buildings and the reek of sewage, Beatrice would be forced to join Roth’s “factionless,” the working poor who perform the scutwork of Divergent‘s society. The prospect makes Beatrice cringe. For her and her peers, she explains, to be factionless is “our worst fear, greater even than the fear of death.”

Financial terror also motivates Suzanne Collin’s blockbuster novel The Hunger Games. In a world of predatory Capitol-ism, Katniss Everdeen and her family exist on the edge of starvation. Her most famous skills — hunting and foraging — are developed to keep her mother and sister alive. Economic desperation tinges even her romantic connections. Peeta first makes an impression when he throws Katniss two warm loaves of raisin nut bread. Gale meets her while poaching in the woods, and their friendship springs from one shared truth: “Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker.”

Reading these books, I find it hard not to remember that The Hunger Games debuted in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. Or that the number of American children living in poverty jumped by more than three million in the four years preceding Divergent‘s 2011 publication. Financial stress in young adult novels may be nothing new: Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic Little Women opens with “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” But to me it seems clear that the economic anxieties keeping today’s adults awake at night — income inequality, food insecurity, downward mobility, winner-takes-all competition — have also invaded the literature of their children.

Read the full article at NPR.org

The Drug Trade Destroys A Generation — Quietly — In ‘Falling’

Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Image via Editorial Alfaguara.
“The Sound of Things Falling” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Reviewed by Marcela Valdes
NPR.org. July 30, 2013.

If I tell you that Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s exquisite novel The Sound of Things Falling is about the drug trade in Colombia, a few stock images might arise in your mind: an addict overdosing in a dirty apartment, say, or a dealer ordering the killing of some troublesome peon, or the drugs themselves bubbling in a volumetric flask. Here in America, shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire have taught us how to think about the drug trade, how to imagine it. But Vasquez was born in Colombia in 1973 — the same year that President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration — and he has a different story for us altogether.

In this novel, nobody overdoses in an apartment. Instead Vasquez gives us delicate renderings of a sonogram (“a sort of luminous universe, a confusing constellation in movement”), of insomnia (“the dew accumulating on the windows like a white shadow when the temperature dropped in the early hours”), of a famous, abandoned car (“the bodywork cracked open, another dead animal whose skin was full of worms”). He gives us the decomposition of a young man’s family in the 1990s and the ripening of a young woman’s first love in the 1970s. He gives us the birth of the war on drugs and the disillusionment of a generous Peace Corps volunteer. He gives us the sound of planes falling, of bodies falling, of lives falling inexorably apart. He gives us the most engrossing Latin American novel I’ve read since Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

Read the full review at NPR.org

What Did You Do in the Dirty War?

My Father's Ghost
‘My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain’ by Patricio Pron
Reviewed by Marcela Valdes
New York Times Book Review. July 5, 2013.

In the 1970s, during the years that Argentina’s last military dictatorship was busy raping, torturing and killing thousands of the country’s citizens, a large obelisk in Buenos Aires was adorned with this menacing piece of advice: ­“Silence is health.” That dictatorship ended in 1983, but no one recovers quickly from a bludgeon, especially not a child. The Argentine novelist Patricio Pron was born in 1975, a year before the Dirty War began. The nameless narrator of his artful novel “My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain” isn’t merely silent; he’s erased.

For eight years he has been living in Germany, popping paroxetine, benzodiazepines and sleeping pills until his mind is shot through with gaps like a censored letter. Lest we forget we’re dealing with damaged goods, Pron makes the novel’s very structure as perforated as our man’s memory. Holes appear in its numbered fragments — a missing No. 8, say, or an elided 17 — whenever the narrator hits a snag. When he gets sick, the sequence turns feverish: 22, 11, 9, 26, 3.

Only when his father sinks into a coma, in August 2008, does this bruised soul finally return to Argentina. There he finds a photograph that disturbs his willful amnesia: Dad in sideburns next to a woman who is not the narrator’s mother. Below the photo lies a folder thick with clippings about a recent missing-person case: 60-year-old Alberto José Burdisso has disappeared from the town of El Trébol; decades earlier his sister, Alicia, vanished during the military dictatorship.

“You don’t ever want to know certain things,” the son thinks, staring at the photo of his father and the woman, “because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Reason enough to eat another Xanax.

But having discovered Dad’s interest in Alberto and Alicia, the protagonist must find out: Who are these siblings? Why did they disappear? How is his father connected to them? And what, exactly, was Dad doing during those crucial years when Argentina’s democracy imploded? Suspense swells through the early sections, as Pron nests mystery within mystery, carefully tending the big enigma: What trauma drove the narrator to Germany, and into the fuzzy comfort of pills?

Read the rest of this review at nytimes.com

‘The Hare’ Leads A Merry Chase

‘The Hare’ by Cesar Aira
Reviewed by Marcela Valdes
NPR.org. June 26, 2013.

To love the novels of Cesar Aira you must have a taste for the absurd, a tolerance for the obscurely philosophical and a willingness to laugh out loud against your better judgment. His latest novel to be translated into English, The Hare, is set in the Argentine pampas at the end of the 19th century. But don’t let any veneer of realism fool you. Despite its gauchos, Indians and lyrical descriptions of Argentina’s sprawling plains, The Hare doesn’t approach the accuracy of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira’s last pampas novel to be published here. It’s more like an episode of Star Trek, crossed with Lawrence of Arabia.

As in so many of Aira’s novels, the hero is an earnest man with a faintly ridiculous mission. Tom Clarke, a British geographer and naturalist, roams the pampas in search of a mythical rabbit that not only jumps but flies. With him ride two Argentine sidekicks: a chatty 15-year-old boy and a taciturn gaucho with his own secret mission. Together the three horsemen visit a series of Indian tribes, becoming more and more entangled in local politics until Clarke is declared commander-in-chief of an Indian confederation and the region erupts in war. Near the book’s climax, the Englishman strips off his clothes, dons Indian greasepaint, and watches a flock of giant ducks usher an enormous egg into the ocean.

Even that bizarre synopsis is too solemn for Aira’s novel. From The Hare’s first chapter, when a drunken dictator pirouettes on the back of a galloping horse, the plot is only loosely attached to logic. Clarke’s journey through the pampas resembles a vast space voyage: long rides through desolate landscape punctuated by conversations with extraordinary grotesques. One of the tribes he meets lives underground, indulging in promiscuous sex and bartering coal for liquor. Another speaks in “monstrous sentences” designed to be incomprehensible. For better or worse, such tribes are more ontological experiments than historical re-creations. And Clarke himself is hardly more rational. His war-winning battle strategy? It’s “the Great Sine Curve of the Mapuche armies, a line that would have exploded the maps if anyone had tried to trace it.”

Read the rest of this review at npr.org